#BakersDozen is a series of interviews with leading professionals in the fields of law, consulting, finance, tech, and more.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be in (or a customer of) the legal business?
I have been a lawyer for almost 30 years. Sounds very weird to me when I say that. I remember very clearly my first week on the job as a new associate at a law firm in St. Louis and saying out loud that I cannot believe that someone was paying me to read and write – two of my favorite things to do in the entire world! I knew I wanted to be a lawyer since I was about ten years old, growing up in tiny York, Nebraska. It all started when I got a group of my friends together to “invest” in a lemonade stand. I charged everyone a dollar and drew up “stock certificates” in a Big Chief tablet. Of course, the lemonade stand quickly went bankrupt (we drank most of the profits the first day). But, I just fell in love with the whole concept of putting deals together and drafting contracts. I wavered a bit in college but I ultimately decided law school was the next step for me. I loved everything about law school and ended up at a great firm. To my surprise, after about a year on the corporate side I moved over to do litigation. I was good at it, mostly because I have no fear of standing up and talking in front of people even if I have to do it on the fly.
I took a job in-house with American Airlines in Dallas and eventually they spun off their technology division, Sabre, and I helped form the new legal department for that company. That was another great experience because I had to learn how to do a bit of everything, from contracts to litigation to immigration. Whatever was needed. I ended up as the general counsel and was in that role when I retired from Sabre in late 2014 after a successful IPO and the ability to step away after 20 years.
I am married to a wonderful woman and have two daughters, both in college now.
What do you do for a living right now?
I guess I am what you call “semi-retired,” but I stay very busy. I work “Of Counsel” for the Dallas office of a boutique law firm, Hilgers Graben PLLC. I do lots of different things, from litigation, to data privacy, to commercial agreements and regulatory work. I am kind of a Swiss Army Knife of legal skills. I also write a pretty popular legal blog entitled “Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel” which the ABA is publishing a “best of” book edition in 2017. I write a monthly column for Thomson Reuters on in-house issues called “The Insider.” My first book, “The Evolution of Professional Football” came out at the end of 2015. I have third book underway but not sure when that will be ready. I serve on the board of directors for Terrasoul Superfoods (an organic food company) and the advisory board of Travefy.com. I also do a lot of speaking engagements and training/consulting sessions with general counsel and with in-house legal departments.
What has been your greatest triumph and your greatest success in the legal services field and what did you learn from each?
I think my greatest success was the Sabre Corporation IPO in 2014. Our Board of Directors had given us a very narrow time frame to complete it so we did what is normally a 10-12 month process in less than six. I learned a number of things including the value of in-house and outside counsel truly partnering to get a deal done, and how to stay calm and collected no matter how crazy things are around you – and working on an IPO with our deadlines was truly crazy-time! Post-it Notes became my best friend. My biggest triumph was putting together a world-class legal team at Sabre. I had been general counsel of Travelocity, a Sabre subsidiary, and when I was promoted I was able to mesh those two very separate and independent groups into one kick-ass global legal team that truly collaborated across borders and time zones. I would match my legal team against any in-house legal team anywhere in the world. We just cranked out contracts, deals, regulatory success, litigation wins, and so forth. When I look back on that team after a couple of years of being away I am in awe of the talent we had and the sheer ability to get things done. Of course, everything changes, but that was one hell of a legal team. Many of them have gone on to head-up their own teams at different companies and it’s always nice to reconnect and learn that they do many of the same things we did in my department.
Do you think the legal industry is headed in the right direction, the wrong direction – or which direction?
It’s more like a cross-roads than right or wrong direction. You have a lot of firms holding on tightly to the “old” model, i.e., billable hours, big staffs, large offices, high rates. Counter to that is a new model based on alternative fees, small teams, virtual offices, and low rates. The new model firms also tend to be early adapters of technology and are far more willing to do things differently. To the extent the new model is pushing the old model to do things differently and rethink the $1,000 an hour lawyer, I believe that’s a good thing. But, it’s too early to tell how it will play out. The good news in my opinion is if in-house lawyers are willing to hire firms based on new criteria – and assuming they can bring their CEOs and Board of Directors along – they can significantly reduce outside counsel spend without sacrificing quality.
Who – or what – inspires you – and why?
My two daughters just amaze me. They are so much more accomplished and way smarter than I was at their age. And they are both kind and compassionate people. Smart and kind is a deadly combination – one that’s missing way too much these days. I am excited to see how their lives progress in college and afterwards in the real world. They are both aware of the opportunities they have and take nothing for granted. That is an incredible amount of maturity for people that young. I think they are both going to do great things. So, watching them as they get started with their lives inspires me to appreciate the opportunities I have had and all of the many people who went out of their way to help me. You can never say “Thank You” enough.
What advice would you give to the younger generation contemplating law as a career?
Become a lawyer because you love it, not because you think you’ll make a lot of money doing it. While the latter may be true in some cases, it is a very tough life-style and the pressures can be tremendous. If you decide to practice law because it’s something you truly want to do, then the rough edges will get smoothed-over and, while still a difficult job, at least you’ll be happy doing it. Otherwise, it can be a truly miserable existence. And I say that after having watched the sun come up too many times in my career.
How ready for change do you think the legal industry is?
I think clients are ready for a change. The legal industry – not so much. That said, there are always going to be firms, usually smaller ones, that will try to break the model or do things “differently” to gain an edge. I like to think that’s what we do at Hilgers Graben. One of the reasons they wanted me was because I bring a deep perspective as to what in-house lawyers are looking for from law firms. I can safely say it’s not $1,000 an hour rates.
Is more – or different – leadership required? In what ways?
If one Big Law firm can/would break the mold on hourly rate or utilization of technology, that would really get things started. But, there is an age-old problem in that there is safety in numbers and the one to break away from the pack may take it on the chin at first – for example – lower revenue for a year or two. No one likes to take it on the chin in the short term even if the long term payoff is out there. That’s why the new guys are typically the ones driving change. They’ve already seen the holes in the model and are moving to play in those spaces and they can do that because they are not entrenched in the old model.
How deep do you think will be the inroads of technology in the industry?
Deep. So deep that it pierces the earth’s crust and strikes molten magna near the core.
In ten years, do you see an industry much as it is – or do you see new players, new technology and an altered state?
The biggest change coming is the growth of artificial intelligence. It started for the most part with e-discovery, and particularly with technology assisted review where you scan documents in and the computer looks for words, phrases, changes in mood or tone, and so forth. All at a rate exponentially faster than a human but with almost the same quality. You are seeing that move into due diligence reviews and compliance investigations. You can even have a computer constantly searching your company’s email data base looking for potential problems. Kind of an advance warning system for corruption and problems.
Are consultants and lawyers looking increasingly similar? Should the distinction continue?
To me they’ve always been basically the same. Both come into a situation, gather information and facts, and make recommendations. To me, lawyers are already providing consulting services. I consult with general counsel and in-house legal departments all the time on how to operate, etc. There’s nothing special about that other than I have a lot of experience to share. The only line not to cross for pure consultants is do not provide legal advice unless you have a law license. But there are a lot of services you can provide to clients, especially in-house legal departments and companies, that do not require providing legal advice.
What are your thoughts on the increasing availability of data to guide client-side procurement of legal services?
This is exactly where things need to land. In every other facet of the business, you see data driving decisions – better decisions. There is no reason why legal services should be immune to this trend. Law firms that can adapt to proving value – in part – via data will stand in a much better position in years to come than firms that hold on to the notion that they can simply offer a 10% discount off rack rates and think the client will be happy. Giving me 10% off the market rate for services in the same location will be the desired deal. And client will (and many already do) know the market rate for legal fees and are refusing to pay more regardless of the name on the letterhead. As I was getting ready to step away from Sabre, I was advocating that we turn law firm negotiations over to the procurement professionals in the company and take it out of the hands of the lawyers in the legal department. If done correctly, I think a partnership between the legal department and procurement can get you the best lawyers at the best price.
Lawyers have typically regulated to keep non-lawyer investors out but that’s a two-edged sword these days. What are your thoughts?
Like so many things, I do not understand why legal services should be treated differently than any other business. Why not have non-lawyer investors? Is the quality of the legal representation going to suffer one iota if non-lawyers can invest in law firms? I doubt it. I think quality will improve, especially with fresh capital and new ideas.
What’s the one most significant factor that will drive change in your view?
That’s easy. It always comes down to cost. Law firms are pricing themselves out of reach for many companies. “Big Law” will ultimately be left fighting over an ever-shrinking puddle of clients who can afford $1,000 an hour and the pack mentality of so many firms, that is, if you want the $1,000 an hour partner you also have to pay for the three or four lawyers that accompany him or her on every representation. Good luck with that down the road. I think you can draw a chalk-outline around it and put up some yellow tape. “Big Law” has no monopoly on talented lawyers. You can get the same quality and level of service at smaller firms for 40% of price. As more and more legal departments (or CFO’s) figure that out, change will come.
Are we seeing the demise of the “profession” and the real emergence of the “business” of law?
We’re past that distinction. This is a business pure and simple. Unless you have a time machine and can go back to 1974 it’s all coming down to who can provide the services I need at the lowest possible price, i.e., law is becoming a quasi-commodity.
What do you consider is the greatest challenge facing the industry?
I think litigation financing is going to be a huge challenge and opportunity.
What do you see as the greatest opportunity for the sector looking forward?
Litigation financing, especially if you can make it work for defendants, is a tremendous opportunity. A close second in my mind is the boutique law firm sector of the marketplace. This pitch is easy: same lawyers, less expensive.
Do you think law can improve its track record on diversity and inclusion? How?
It definitely can. As the father of two daughters I certainly hope so. I also believe that it will improve. But, there is a certain level of patience you need to have as more women and minorities get into and through law school and then go through the normal progression through the firm. You still have to deserve it and it takes a long number of years to prove your meddle as a lawyer, as a manager, and as a “rainmaker.” Hard work and long hours are still part of the deal. There are no shortcuts to success in the law.
Will the current regulatory framework around law help or hinder it in the future?
I think many parts of the framework are a drag on the future. The advertising restrictions are arcane and limit the ability of people to fully understand their options for legal services.
Who do you think are the greatest influencers on the industry these days?
First, is the Supreme Court. Second, are the folks inventing or enhancing technology for use by law firms and in-house legal departments. The former is pretty obvious in terms of impact. The latter is at the vanguard of change. I remember when fax machines were new and we used Dictaphones. Look where we are now. I guess third would be the lawyers who figure out how best to use the new technologies. Once someone demonstrates what you can do with it, others will follow quickly.
If you had to do it all over again, would you? Or what would you do differently?
I never look backward, only forward. So, the short answer is nothing. The long answer is everything because if I did one thing differently 30 years ago my entire present would be very different.
If a law firm was a startup pitching for investors, would you be an investor?
Depends on the model they are pitching. If it’s the “Big Law” model, I don’t think so. If it’s a “New Law” model where pricing is nimble and technology top of mind, probably yes.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
I be playing in a band full time. I am currently in band that does mostly 80’s classics. It is unbelievably fun. I have been in bands most of my life and you always wonder what if I really tried to make it? I suspect I would have ended up with the nine million other failed musicians, but you never know. So, if I had the chance, that would be a pretty good way to “work.”
What would you like to be known for?
I would like the “Ten Things” blog to continue to grow. I have around 1,600 readers and it would be really neat if that topped 2,000 soon. And I would like the book version to become indispensable to in-house lawyers and to law schools teaching courses about how to be an in-house lawyer.
What would surprise everyone if they knew (they may now).
I am a master of “crockpot” cooking! That may be book number four.
What’s your favorite hobby or activity outside of law?
Writing and music. I am pretty good at one of those… I also am good at binge-watching on Netflix.
What’s your favorite sports team?
Easy. The Nebraska Cornhuskers!
What’s your favorite city?
What’s your favorite food?
Breakfast cereal. How strange is that? If Wolfgang Puck had a breakfast cereal restaurant, I’d be lined up outside waiting to get it.
What’s your nickname – and why?
“Sammy,” though only my Mom and Dad call me that. I am named after my paternal grandfather and when I was little growing up in the same town as him it was easier to call me “Sam” or “Sammy” than to call me “Little Sterling” or something like that.
Sterling Miller served as Executive Vice President, General Counsel, Corporate Secretary, and Chief Compliance Officer for Sabre Corporation from June 2008 until retiring in November 2014. Prior to this position he was the Senior Vice President and General Counsel for Sabre’s wholly-owned subsidiary Travelocity.com from 2004 to 2008. He currently serves as Senior Counsel to the Dallas office of the litigation boutique Hilgers Graben PLLC (litigation, data privacy, contracts, internal investigations) and consults with in-house legal departments.
The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee, and not of their affiliated organizations or of High Performance Counsel.